I just enjoyed a long FaceTime with the most honorable (now retired) head of the English Department at Touro College (in NYC), Dr. Michael Popkin, and we laughed about a vivid memory. Well, this is how I remember it…
In 1983, all incoming freshmen were required to take an English placement exam which consisted of writing an original short placement essay that determined the level of classes for registration. We were allotted 2 hours to complete the exam and provided with as many blank, blue essay books as necessary. Dr. Popkin sat unassumingly at the front of the room to read and grade each paper.
I believe that I chose to write about the lofty plans I had for my life.
As the young ladies around me were feverishly attempting to score well, some nervously scribbled out their words, several sat traumatized by this momentous task, staring into space while wishing they had paid attention to “who and whom”. In the back, one girl frantically tore bits of paper from the blue covers, making tiny piles of sweat-soaked trash instead of making art. Well, maybe that was her art and I decided not to judge.
Like the Perfect Storm, two strong factors came together at this moment to bring me an otherworldly serenity and clarity.
The first was that my only skill involves words…both writing them and speaking them. My grandfather, who was our doctor, insisted that he had vaccinated me with a phonograph needle and Mom swears that I spoke 30 words on my first birthday.
The second was that I had just graduated from Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska, where the curriculum was designed to turn decent writers into proficient, effective communicators and to mold exceptional writers into successful screenwriters, best selling authors, and highly regarded journalists. To graduate, a student MUST complete years of intense scrutiny which comes complete with the 100+-year-old CHS Style Book. This little booklet is more valuable than Berkshire Hathaway stock. The Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, married a Central High School graduate, Susie, so she must have taught him a few things,
Writing my essay in that windowless room, I was oblivious to the women melting down around me until I stood up after 20 minutes, smiling confidently after a satisfactory review of my work, and gathered my things. Pencils dropped. Students either dug down to finish or they stared at me as if my skirt was tucked into my pantyhose (I know it was not because I self-consciously checked!) and I met their eyes. Panic. Stress. Confusion. Jealousy. Actually, had this been a math placement exam, I might have had the look of a trapped feral cat on my face, as well.
I handed my booklets to Dr. Popkin and went to sit in the hallway to await the decision on my placement. Alone. Occupying myself momentarily by second-guessing if I had used who or whom properly. A few minutes later, Dr. Popkin, tall and composed, walked out of the testing room and gently asked me one question, “Where did you learn to write like this?”
My first thought was, “Oh, crap.”
What do you do when everything you thought about yourself is suddenly in question?
The basis of every parent-teacher conference my parents ever attended was, “She’s really good with words but if only she’d apply herself in other areas…” Heaven Almighty, words are my playground! With words, I had opened doors, changed hearts, built bridges, been elected President of the student council, held my own against a Nazi hate group, and addressed 5,000 people at my high school graduation.
What did I do? I stood my ground.
“In High School in Omaha, Sir,” I answered.
He smiled at me, nodded, and said, “Ah, I thought so. The only other essay that scored this high was the one written by your sister, Mindy.”
Today, Dr. Michael Popkin answered my request for a call to discuss my first novel in our book-to-film series. Not having spoken with the Professor in over a decade, I shared my lofty plans for the future, he asked good questions and he smiled knowingly at me across the miles. I momentarily hesitated to ask one question and it was the one thing I really wanted to know. After laying everything (except the story itself) out to him, I blurted out, “Am I delusional?”
An educator who elevated each of his students to believe in their ability to bring words to life, answered me clearly, “I would never calculate the odds against you.”
My former English professor used a reference to statistics to answer my question.
I just got schooled.